Election Day is almost here: What are the chances of serious political violence?

Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen on "the extreme worst-case scenario" after a disputed election: Civil war

By Chauncey DeVega
November 2, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)
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Black Lives Matter protest outside of the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin. | Far right protesters march in Tom McCall Waterfront Park as part of the Patriot Prayer Rally. The Proud Boys organized the Patriot Prayer Rally in Portland. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The alarm sirens are blaring. The warning lights are flashing bright red. Donald Trump has repeatedly used the strategy of stochastic terrorism to encourage violence against Democrats, liberals, progressives and others he deems to be the "enemy." Some of his followers have enthusiastically followed these commands.

Beginning with Trump's 2016 campaign and through to his presidency, the United States has experienced a large increase in hate crimes and other violence against nonwhite people, Jews, Muslims and others by Trump supporters and those who share their beliefs.

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There have been repeated examples of Trump supporters threatening to kill prominent Democrats, including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and others.

With Election Day almost upon us, Trump has escalated his appeals to political violence. During the first debate with Joe Biden Trump told the Proud Boys, a right-wing group of political street thugs, to "stand by" in case he was not re-elected. The Trump regime is also trying to create an "army" of 50,000 "poll watchers" whose purpose will be to intimidate and threaten Democratic voters, especially Black and brown people.

A group of alleged right-wing terrorists, inspired by Trump, was recently arrested by the FBI for plotting to kidnap (and perhaps murder) Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. This terrorist cell also planned to attack "tyrants" in other states.

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 The FBI and other law enforcement agencies have warned that white supremacist terrorism — as well as violence by the far right more generally — poses a great threat to the country's domestic security. Trump and his inner circle have ignored these warnings and suppressed the information, because the Trump regime does not want to alienate its most enthusiastic supporters.

Trump's rallies have always been a festering cauldron of fascism, cult behavior, violence and white supremacist ideology. As Election Day approaches and it appears increasingly likely that Trump will be defeated if the votes of the American people are actually counted, Trump comes ever closer to overtly embracing fascist violence.

At Trump's rallies, the United States flag has almost officially replaced by the fascist, racist, authoritarian "Blue Lives Matter" flag. This is another encouragement of state-sponsored violence by Donald Trump against his movement's perceived enemies — meaning nonwhite people, Black Lives Matter activists, liberals and progressives, and anyone else deemed to be "justifiable" targets.

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Writing at the Milwaukee Independent, Mаurіcе Chаmmаh and Cаry Аspіnwаll explore this:

What originally began as a banner supporting law enforcement in recent years been increasingly hijacked by White Supremacist groups who use it as a Neo-Confederate flag and symbol of the anti-Black Lives Matter movement. Since the death of George Floyd it has been flown alongside the American flag at Trump rallies.

At his "superspreader" event in Waukesha [Wisconsin] on October 24, Trump's campaign took the unprecedented step of replacing the patriotic red, white, and blue of the "Stars and Stripes." Instead, the cold black, white, and blue was displayed as the dominant background for Trump at the event, in what critics call a visual dog whistle.

Those who fly the flag have said it stands for solidarity and professional pride within a dangerous, difficult profession and a solemn tribute to fallen police officers. But it has also been flown by white supremacists, appearing next to Confederate flags at the 2017 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville.

Philosopher Jason Stanley described this on Twitter as the "replacement of the American flag by a fascist one. Whether Trump manages to stay in office or not, the second Confederacy now has a banner."

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In total, Trump is a racial authoritarian who views the country's multiracial democracy as something to be destroyed as a means to create a new American apartheid state, which will keep him in power indefinitely.

Public opinion polls and other research show deep apprehension about the possibility of political violence on Election Day and beyond, up to and including the possibility of a new civil war led by Trump's supporters and other right-wing extremists.

These anxieties and fears are not misplaced: Experts on political violence have concluded that the United States in the Age of Trump is on the precipice of large-scale political violence.

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What are the scenarios for political violence and social upheaval on Election Day? What are the likely tactics and strategies that right-wing extremists, paramilitaries and other groups may use to disrupt the Election Day and American society more broadly? How are "accelerationists" as well as the "Boogaloo boys" taking advantage of political and social tumult in the Age of Trump? Does the United States face an armed insurgency if political polarization and extremism continue to escalate?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with David Kilcullen. He is one of the world's leading experts on counterinsurgency and military strategy. Kilcullen is also a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, where he teaches in the Global Security program.

Kilcullen is also founding chairman of Caerus Associates, a strategy and design consulting firm. He served as an officer in the Australian Army and then as a counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of several books, including "The Accidental Guerrilla," "Counterinsurgency," "Out of the Mountains," and "Blood Year." Kilcullen's new book is "The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West."

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You can also listen to my conversation with David Kilcullen on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

This conversation had been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling amid this election campaign?

I'm in a pretty negative place. I feel this way primarily because if the United States wants to avoid where it looks like it is all heading toward, with political violence, there needs to be reconciliation and listening and compromise. As I see it the problem is that the media environment is so polarized — which includes social media — that the situation is like a non-overlapping Venn diagram. People on the right are looking at a completely different reality than the people who are on the left. There is very little overlap, to the point where basic facts are not in agreement. The right wing and the left wing in America disagree on the nature of reality. An echo chamber has replaced consensus knowledge of the world.

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You are an expert on guerrilla warfare, insurgency and military strategy and tactics more generally. When you look at political violence in the Age of Trump and the 2020 election, what do you see and understand that the mainstream media and the other non-experts do not?

I have been doing this type of work for several decades. Consider antifa, for example. There is an argument at present where the right wing from the attorney general on down are talking about antifa as a domestic terrorist organization, or at the very least as a nationwide extremist movement. That is a significant exaggeration. But there are also people on the other end of the political spectrum who say that antifa is a myth. Antifa is a real organization, but it is organized in a way that many among the general public may not be familiar with. Antifa is what I would label as "militant street activists." The right wing is trying to paint antifa as being the equivalent of [right-wing groups] The Base or Atomwaffen or another terrorist group.

The equivalence is not accurate. The equivalent on the right are the Proud Boys or Patriot Prayer, who are also militant street activists. "Militant" does not necessarily mean armed with rifles. It just means that they are out there on the street. They are motivated and mobilized and willing to engage in violence. Overall a small part of the population that is involved in street activism are willing to engage in violence by throwing concrete milkshakes or using pepper spray or something like that. A willingness to engage in that activity does not make them militias or terrorists.

Many of the right-wing militias have only five or 10 members. They are very small, and they are also very defensive-minded. Likewise, on the left much has been made of Redneck Revolt and the John Brown gun clubs. They too are defensive and are trying to protect people on the streets from the possibility of violence.

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Now, that does not mean they're not violent. Analysts often look for hate as the key driver of violence. But the research on civil war and our experiences with counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare generally shows that most of the worst atrocities are not driven by hate. They are instead driven by fear. Obviously, that fear can be a much bigger problem when there is a spark that triggers violence.                           

And then there are the insurgents. They are at the top of the threat pyramid. We have not really seen any of that type of action in the United States. That is why the country at present is in a "pre-insurgency" or "incipient" state of insurgency.

How do accelerationist groups and the Boogaloo Boys fit into your model?

Consider Atomwaffen or The Base. Accelerationist groups fit into that category of insurgents. What we are discussing here is an urban insurgency or urban guerrilla operations. They consist of three- to four-person cells that operate on the ground. They attack by using means such as bombings or mass shootings. Perhaps targeting the water supply for example. These types of operations also make use of a network of safe houses. At this moment in the United States I see such groups waiting. We have not seen such groups do very much. There have been a few incidents but nothing on a wide scale.

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The scariest thing about the present moment is that the really violent groups have not really taken part yet in the protests and other activities. If there is a repeat of such events like the George Floyd protests after Election Day, that creates a perfect storm for someone to then step into the middle of the situation with a couple of shooters or an actual IED instead of fireworks. At that point the situation changes to an incipient civil war rather than just an insurgency.

"Boogaloo" is a phrase used as a way of avoiding getting banned on Twitter. It is a type of code that has been misinterpreted for a good amount of time. There is not a Boogaloo Boys "movement." They do not think of themselves that way. "Boogaloo" is the name of an event, that event being the next civil war. It is not something that they want — it is actually something they think is inevitable. In the spaces online where they talk, there is a debate of sorts going on about, "Should we just sit this one out or should we actually take a hand?" If they wanted a civil war, they would be pushing it.

The accelerationists are the ones who want to see a war in America. They do not use the term "boogaloo." They are coming from a different ideological place. They are very anti-Semitic and "anti-globalist."

If you were to go to some of the right-wing sites, you would see how many of the people there laugh at how badly the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and similar mainstream media publications misinterpret what is really happening. These accelerationists and other such groups are dangerous — but dangerous in a way that is not commonly understood. They are dangerous because if they continue to see antifa as domestic terrorists — and somehow, in their minds, connected to Black Lives Matter and Black people — then we are heading into a "race war."

How do these right-wing and other extremist groups radicalize and recruit new members?

People that are higher up that pyramid go looking for recruits lower down. Groups actually go out and talent-spot at protests, to see if they can find somebody particularly militant and also particularly willing to engage in violence. That person might then get approached or otherwise recruited to join a more organized group. That radicalization and recruitment process is how it works on the right.

For the left it is a little bit different, because antifa in particular organizes through affinity groups. Essentially it is like a conveyor belt, where people move up the chain from just being a street protester to a very small subset of them becoming more militant. Then some people will get recruited to carry weapons and be "security forces." People are very carefully groomed into such behavior such that they do not see the ultimate destination until they are almost there.

In terms of context, if one looks at the level of violence so far in 2020 and the last three or four years in the U.S., it is well below the levels of political violence that we saw in the 1970s. But the difference between now and the 1960s or 1970s is that every single incident gets amplified and broadcast and rebroadcast and turned into a meme and a T-shirt, and there is also a type of martyrdom function at work as well.

Kyle Rittenhouse has become a martyr on the right. They call him the "Kenosha Kid." There are all these video tributes and memes about him. Michael Reinoehl, who was killed by law enforcement agents [in Washington state] is now essentially viewed as a type of martyr by the left. Aaron Danielson, a supporter of Patriot Prayer [killed by Reinoehl in Portland], is now being portrayed by the right as a martyr who was killed by some antifa/Black Lives Matter assassination squad. Of course, there is little if any evidence to support such a claim. Moreover, the argument that Danielson was a completely innocent person who just happened to be wandering around a protest in Portland also falls apart under scrutiny.

I felt like what happened with Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha was akin to crossing the Rubicon. Having lethal violence involving Garrett Foster, Kyle Rittenhouse, Jay Danielson and Michael Reinoehl all in the short period of a few weeks helped to normalize political killing using military-grade weaponry out in the streets. Once that starts, it is very hard to stop it.

What do think is the worst-case scenario for Election Day and immediately afterward, in terms of political violence and other disruptions?

Logically, there are only three outcomes that can happen: A clear Biden victory, a clear Trump victory, or a contested outcome. I believe the third outcome is the most likely one, where both Biden and Trump claim victory, the public does not know the outcome, or it is just unclear on Election Day. There will certainly be enough motivation and justification for people who want to promote violence to claim that the 2020 presidential election has been stolen or rigged. There could be a disputed election which takes weeks to try to resolve. Then people are torching schools or surrounding courthouses as a way of exercising some type of heckler's veto over the outcome. Such events could become a repeat of what happened in the aftermath of George Floyd.

The worst scenario at that point is that the cell-based accelerationist groups decide that now is the moment to provoke a bigger conflict. If you are the Russians, the Chinese or the Iranians, three countries that are known to have a strong interest in keeping the United States disrupted and facing inward for as long as possible, the temptation would be almost overwhelming to engage in some kind of externally sponsored accelerationism.

The extreme worst-case scenario on Election Day and afterwards is a disputed outcome where Biden and Trump both claim to be president of the United States. There is a breakdown in the Electoral College, mass rioting in the streets and somewhere it suddenly becomes even more violent where 25 people are killed in one incident, or an IED is exploded, or it is not cars ramming a crowd but a mass shooting instead.

At that point it is the beginning of a second civil war here in America. It will not involve states seceding but something like Colombia, where there is low-grade violence in multiple places simultaneously — but it adds up to a lot of people killed.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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